RUMFORD — Eight days after being elected national commander of the American Legion in Indianapolis, James Koutz came here to greet and thank veterans.
Maine was the first stop for Koutz, of Boonville, Ind., on his tour of legion posts across the nation and around the world. He is promoting membership in the legion and fundraising for Operation Comfort Warriors, an American Legion project.
"What that is, is taking care of our wounded soldiers, giving them some of the essentials they need when they come back while they're in our hospitals recuperating from their wounds or maybe some diseases they may have," the U.S. Army Vietnam veteran said.
"Of course, we are a war-time veterans' organization trying to get out the word on all of the good things we do, like youth programs, such as American Legion baseball, Boys State, Boys Nation, oratorical contests, junior shooting sports, and many more," he said.
Koutz said he would travel to Vietnam and Laos during his term to spend four days digging for the remains of American soldiers.
"Hopefully, we can find some of our heroes over there," he said.
Koutz arrived at the Rumford post at 10 a.m. following breakfast at the George Bunten Post 10 in Livermore Falls. To everyone he met, he gave red American Legion pins of the state of Indiana emblazoned with his name as national commander and the saying, "Every day is Veterans Day."
Following refreshments inside Post 24, Rumford Town Manager Carlo Puiia presented Koutz with the key to Rumford.
"Although we're a small town, we're big on veterans," Puiia said. "We're very fortunate that we can have a national commander here in our little town — our little corner of Western Maine — to give us honor and to honor the local people who are here today."
Post 24 Commander Kirk Thurston presented Koutz with a Post 24 Maine license plate.
American Legion Department of Maine National Executive Committeeman Paul L'Heureux of Lewiston read a brief biography of Koutz's military and legion background.
He reported to Vietnam in January 1970 and served an extended tour of duty with Company C 169th Engineer Battalion, L'Heureux said.
Honorably discharged in March 1971, Koutz immediately joined the American Legion and later served as post commander of Boonville Post 200, where his father, a World War II veteran, is a past commander.
Koutz also served as commissioner of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and has held elected and appointed offices in the American Legion at all levels, L'Heureux said.
"So you can see he has a great care and love for veterans," L'Heureux said.
Koutz said he wants the American Legion family to raise $500,000 for Operation Comfort Warriors during his yearlong term by selling special coins, lapel pins and hats at functions.
The program, he said, has been providing wounded soldiers with laptops, sporting equipment, weight rooms, TVs, "whatever we can do to help those warriors who are coming back severely injured" with amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
"We want to make sure they get the comfort items they need and the way to do that is Operation Comfort Warrior," Koutz said.
He acknowledged the Maine department's high membership numbers, telling its officers they are "doing a great job right now."
He urged legion officials to advertise the legion and its programs to grow membership and "to help us do what we do for our veterans and our wounded soldiers who are coming back."
Koutz closed his speech by recognizing World War II veteran Anthony W. Martin of Dixfield. Martin, who was with the 42nd Infantry Division, said he served 46 months in the Army and five years in the National Guard.
Koutz walked over to Martin, 88, who stood and the two shook hands, a big grin spreading across Martin's face.
Koutz thanked him for service to his country and gave him an Operation Comfort Warriors coin.
"Well, I thought it was pretty good," Martin said afterward of the recognition. "I was the only veteran here that was in the Korean War, too."